La Vaquera

La Vaquera translates to “The Cowgirl”, an apt name for the vibrant little restaurant nestled in Southwest Little Rock.
The restaurant location was opened by husband and wife dream team Miguel and Sanjuana Torres in 2017.

Meet the Owners

Miguel and Sanjuana both hail from San Luis Potosi in Central Mexico. They met and struck up a friendship at the age of eight, and little did they know then how important their connection would be all these years later.

Miguel left San Luis Potosi to move here to the United States when he was only thirteen years old. Coming from a big family, Miguel immigrated to the US in order to find his own path and his own place in the world. He traveled to Arkansas with an older sister, but within a few months he struck out on his own. Finding his way to Indianapolis, Miguel searched high and low for a business willing to employ someone as young as him. Fortunately, Miguel found a job with a Chinese restaurant. From then on, he has worked solidly in the restaurant industry. He has lived all over the United States, including Boston, Memphis, and Dallas, but he ended up returning to Arkansas to be with his older sister. He learned quickly that nothing is as important as family.

Miguel traveled back and forth to visit home frequently. It was on these visits that he reconnected with Sanjuana, and it didn’t take long for the sparks to fly. They were teenage sweethearts and eventually married, starting their own family in 1992. It took Sanjuana a little more convincing to settle down in Arkansas, however. She was studying to teach Pre-school and wasn’t quite as sure that her future was in the United States. After some time though, she decided to move to Arkansas and have all her family together. She officially made the move in 1999. Once here, she too found herself working in a Chinese restaurant.

Miguel and Sanjuana decided to open up a convenience store and sell groceries and produce in the Southwest Little Rock community. They both enjoyed working for themselves and being their own bosses. When the market crash happened in 2008, they began losing business to Walmart and needed to find a way to supplement their income. They kept their eyes and minds open to business opportunities wherever they went and they came along a taco food truck that was for sale. It was called La Vaquera. This was the beginning of their big restaurant adventure - their origin story. The truck was so well received that the Torres family was able to open a restaurant location in 2017. By this time their family had grown to include five children, all of whom help out regularly around the restaurant.

La Vaquera is an authentic, family run place. In fact, Miguel and Sanjuana are the only chefs! They have an employee who helps run the front of the restaurant and works with the customers. The recipes on the menu all come straight from Sanjuana and her mother’s own recipe book and everything is tested thoroughly by the Torres kids before being approved for the menu.

The Food

When asked what their favorite menu items were, they had a tough time picking. Ultimately, Miguel has a fondness for the Steak Tacos and Sanjuana has a soft spot for their Steak Quesadilla. Their oldest son, Miguel, favors the Enchiladas Potosinas – which can’t be found on the menu, but can be specially requested. These special enchiladas are set apart by the made-to-order guacamole that coats the inside. In addition to the fresh guacamole, they can be stuffed with either grilled steak or chicken.

I have a personal weakness for enchiladas, so I decided to try the Cheese Enchiladas and washed it all down with Horchata made from scratch. Fortunately, I went with a large group, so we were able to sample many fine dishes. La Vaquera has real bragging rights when it comes to their house-made enchilada sauce – it’s delicious. It has such body and bold flavor that it truly makes the dish. The horchata was delightfully refreshing with the perfect dosing of cinnamon.

The Milanesa de Pollo was a perfectly seasoned and crispy piece of juicy, tender chicken breast.

A Little Rock favorite is the Taco Salad. It is a beloved classic of the people in Arkansas, and the version cooked up by La Vaquera doesn’t disappoint. It comes in a wonderfully crisp shell and is stuffed with flavorful meat and veggies.

All around the table I only heard positive reviews (and many sighs of satisfaction) about everything tried.  The Gorditas came in hand-patted corn pockets that struck the perfect balance of flavor and thickness.  The beef stood out as a particularly succulent stuffing for this hand-sized pocket of goodness.

The Bistek a la Mexicana is a spicy, flavorful dish that isn’t for individuals who can’t take the heat. If you like some fire though, this is the meal for you. It’s tender steak is seasoned to perfection – it’s the real deal.

The Tacos Supremos are a colorful and fresh fiesta on a plate. They taste as good as they look too!

The food is truly delicious, fresh, and authentic. What really makes La Vaquera stand out though is the special story of a dedicated and loving family that came to the United States to seek opportunity. I asked Miguel and Sanjuana what their experience in the US had been like. Sanjuana simply said it had been “beautiful” with a content smile. Miguel replied that he has lived a full life here in the United States. He’s gone through it all, the good and the bad. He’s had hard times, but he has had many happy times as well.

They are happy to be here in the United States, and they are happy to be raising their children here. As parents they want nothing more than for their children to be happy, explore, do well in life, and have the chance to do things that they themselves were not able to. Miguel and Sanjuana embody the spirit of most immigrants to the US. They work hard – and frequently. Their restaurant is open 10AM – 9PM Monday and Wednesday – Saturday and 9AM - 9PM on Sundays. They believe wholeheartedly in chasing after dreams and relentlessly pursuing a better life. Miguel believes that anyone can accomplish anything they want if they are willing to work hard for it. He knows it can be hard sometimes, he has experienced it for himself, but he believes “where there is a will, there’s a way.”

I heartily recommend dining at La Vaquera. Come, eat, talk, and have another beer!

Visit:
La Vaquera
10308 Chicot Rd., Little Rock, AR 72209
(501) 565 – 3108
Delivery available through Postmates

Hours:
Sunday: 9AM – 9 PM
Monday: 10AM – 9PM
Tuesday: Closed
Wednesday - Saturday: 10AM – 9PM

About the Author:

Jodi

I love food and I love getting to know new people. I have always found that everyone has an interesting story, and absolutely nothing beats sharing stories over delicious food. It is my goal in life to meet as many good people and eat as much good food as possible.

Bali Kitchen

MEET THE RESTAURATEUR

Jazz Pasay, Owner of Bali Kitchen

Nestled right at the heart of East Village, New York City, is a small and chic Indonesian restaurant. Bali Kitchen, owned by Indonesian immigrant Jazz Pasay, features an industrial chic decor which blends in well with the East Village aesthetic. This neighborhood is unique because the 1960s brought about an influx of musicians, artists, and hippies drawn to low rent prices. Bali Kitchen’s white-painted exposed brick wall and dark wood tabletops contrast with the silvery metal chairs and the stark black exterior. This combination with a glass storefront creates a beautiful setting to eat delicious food.

Bali Kitchen Exterior

Bali Kitchen is only a few blocks away from the iconic New York deli, Katz delicatessen. But not to worry, Bali Kitchen holds its own.

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, is a warm and put together individual who is a confluence of Indonesian culture. His passion to share Indonesian food as a vehicle for culture is contagious. He was born in Manado, a city on Sulawesi island but grew up in Surabaya, East Java island spending much time in Bali and eventually moved to the capital city, Jakarta. His menu is inspired by his vibrant and island-hopping style upbringing. Pasay takes the best dish from every city and showcases them in his menu, thereby bringing the best of Indonesia to New York City.

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, holding a plate of fake rambutans (an Indonesian fruit)

“I immigrated straight to New York City,” said Pasay. He worked for American, Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants before ultimately opening Bali Kitchen.

Pasay opened this restaurant in September of 2017 with the mission of sharing Indonesian culture to New Yorkers. New York City is already well known for its ethnic diversity and charming multicultural society, so introducing Indonesian food and culture is another great addition to this already breathtaking city.

Pasay’s mother owned a small catering business in Jakarta where he was introduced to the importance food plays in shaping identity and forging relationships among people. While Pasay helped his mother in the kitchen occasionally, he still owns a fashion business in Jakarta that has been operating for the last 20 years called Jazz Pasay & SAMAR costume & beyond.

Head Chef, David Silva Perez, cooking in the kitchen of Bali Kitchen

Pasay gets his aromatics, spices, and ingredients from an Indonesian grocery store in Chinatown as well as from Amherst, Queens. According to Pasay, there is a large and thriving Indonesian community in Queens and supermarkets with imported Indonesian goods are abundant in the area.

Interior of Bali Kitchen.

Pasay’s genuine need to share his culture comes through when asked about his clientele. He knows them very well, already categorizing the restaurant eaters into three groups. His familiarity with who eats at his restaurant reflects his passion to share his culture to both those who don’t know it and those already familiar with it. He explains the first group are local New Yorkers who live in East Village. Second come New Yorkers who have, according to Pasay, “certain connection to Indonesia, either they have been to Indonesia or they have family members or friends who are Indonesian”. And thirdly, are Indonesian tourists who need some taste of home after traveling to the States.

BEING GAY IN INDONESIA

Pasay immigrated in 2012 through his husband. Pasay said, “Gay marriage over there [in Indonesia] is very illegal so I just moved here [New York City].” Pasay married his husband in June 2012 while in the process of applying for gay asylum, he said, “Lucky us, before submitting the file, the US federal government legalized same-sex marriage in June 2013.”

The Indonesian LGBT community is subject to discrimination and hate crimes. Indonesia is a Muslim majority country and religion is very closely tied with politics, thereby affecting public policy. Religious norms hold strong beliefs that make it dangerous for Indonesians to express their sexuality and many face threats to their lives, such as flogging punishments in Aceh. Same-sex marriage is not recognized and same-sex couples are not protected under the eyes of the law. Recently, the political climate is increasingly hostile as sharia-supporting terrorist fundamentalist Muslim groups have gained more support.

OBSTACLES FACED IN AMERICA

Pasay talks about the hardships he faced with opening a restaurant in America. For instance, Indonesian cuisine may simply be too exotic and therefore practically unheard of to many Americans. This lack of exposure is a significant barrier to bringing customers to his restaurant. Pasay said, “Not many people are familiar with Indonesian food so it’s hard for them to instantly get drawn to it.”

Further, there was a difference in workplace dynamics that needed to get some getting used to; such as the relationship between employer and employee is more hierarchical back in Indonesia. Pasay said, “It’s just harder to manage people because this is America and it’s not like in Indonesia where you can just ask people to do things. Here it’s a different dynamic.”

Pasay also mentions health regulations as an unexpected obstacle. Pasay said, “In Indonesia, you serve food at room temperature and it’s okay. But here everything has to be hot and cooked right away. If you leave the food out for a long time the health department would give us sanctions.” What makes it difficult, according to Pasay, “our food has different varieties [of cooking methods]: one is baked, grilled, fried, steamed and so you really have to be able to manage the time.”

THE CUISINE

Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups and this presents a uniquely diverse and incredibly wide range of dishes. Indonesia is a large exporter of spices which leads to crazy flavor combinations in their food. From his menu, Pasay recommends Nasi Campur Bali, Rendang, and Nasi Goreng. He said, “Those three are very popular.”

Bali Kitchen’s food is authentic and traditional, with hardly any American influence. According to Pasay, the taste may seem diluted to some people “because of the spice itself. We [him and his chefs] cannot get the fresh one so we’re subjected with the dried ones so as a result, it’s not really rich like in Indonesia. But in terms of authenticity, we employ/add the whole thing according to the traditional authentic recipe.”

Bali Kitchen Menu

My first visit I decided to order the house special Nasi Campur Bali, which literally translates to Rice Mix Bali. This dish is incredibly complex with nine different toppings (yes, nine) on top of rice plated over banana leaves served with a side of extra hot chili paste. Nasi Campur Bali acts much like a microcosm of Indonesian cultural identity- separate components that all come beautifully together in a delicious dish. Nasi Campur Bali includes chicken marinated in a combination of Indonesian herbs topped with grated coconut flakes, peanuts, egg topped with chilli sauce, tempeh (fried fermented soybean), green beans, fried shallots, krupuk (deep fried cracker), sate lilit (chicken skewer marinated in Indonesian herbs) and some battered and fried miscellaneous vegetables. If you like your food sweet, I definitely recommend topping it off with the in house sweet soy sauce called kecap manis that they provide on the countertop next to the cutlery.

Going clockwise: Jamu drink, chilli sauce, krupuk and Nasi Campur Bali (House Special dish).

For the accompanying beverage, Bali Kitchen has a wide range to choose from, including but not limited to durian juice, coconut water, iced lychee or rambutan, and sweetened iced teas (famously teh botol and teh kotak). I chose the traditional Indonesian drink, Jamu which is a blend of turmeric, tamarind, black pepper, and yacon syrup. The thin, dark orangey liquid was surprisingly pleasant despite the unconventional mix of ingredients and perfectly complements the main course because it cuts right through the intense spiciness of the added chili. Traditionally, Jamu is a medicinal drink but here it takes on a milder taste, while still staying true to the health benefits of its original inspiration.

My second visit I ordered Nasi Goreng Kampung, fried rice with dried fish and shrimp paste. This dish is topped with eight toppings: sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, shrimp crackers, pickled vegetables, fried onions, fried egg, dried fish and dried shrimp. Nasi Goreng Kampung is a staple, everyday food for Indonesians and has an incredibly strong flavor profile that can only be achieved using a variety of spices.

Nasi Goreng Kampung

Bali Kitchen doubles not only as a restaurant but a catering service- with a secret menu. Pasay mentions that with the cold New York winter season, offices and private events order food for large groups. They famously prepare Nasi Tumpeng, an elaborate and colorful feast centered around yellow, aromatic infused rice shaped in an inverted cone. Pasay smiles when he mentions that those who call for this service are almost always Indonesians because they are familiar with what they want and ask him to prepare special orders like terasi and ikan asin which are sometimes unfeasible to cook in the small restaurant kitchen. But don’t be intimidated, Pasay is very friendly and is willing to cater to newcomers who have no idea that they would be in for such a treat!

Nasi Tumpeng catering order. Image courtesy of Bali Kitchen.

Nasi Tumpeng is an extremely significant dish to Indonesian cultural and historical identity. It dates far back to ancient Indonesian tradition that revered mountains as spirits. Read more about the symbolic and philosophical meanings and the complex beliefs about Nasi Tumpeng in this article.

SITUATION NOW IN INDONESIA

Indonesia was hit particularly bad throughout 2018 by a series of earthquakes and tsunamis that caused numerous casualties namely in the regions of Java, Sumatra, Lombok, and Sulawesi. The worst of which struck Sulawesi last September which killed over 2,000 people. Despite Indonesia’s unfortunate familiarity with earthquakes and tsunamis, there is a lack of infrastructure available to prevent high casualties. Death and injuries could have been mitigated or avoided but instead, the government failed to maintain warning systems that would have saved many lives.

CNN covered an article about what went wrong with Indonesia’s early tsunami warning system, which highlights the country’s failure to warn its citizens due to “vandalism, limited budget, and technical damage to tsunami buoys”, according to Supoto Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Board for Disaster Management.

Despite the natural disasters that occur seemingly frequently in the area and questionable human rights issues, Indonesia remains a fascinating place to visit. To get a small taste of that Indonesian spirit, visit Bali Kitchen, right here in the Big Apple. You won't be sorry.

 

Visit:
Bali Kitchen
128 E 4th Street • New York, NY 10003
646.678.4784
Hours: Everyday from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

About the Author

Isabel is an adventurous eater and will happily go out of her culinary comfort zone. She’s constantly obsessed with finding her new favorite food and trying the craziest foods. As an avid traveler, she believes food is the perfect way to bridge the gaps between people of different cultures.